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26 January 2016

Turning sour: Turkey can’t solve Europe’s migrant crisis

A Baklava shop tells the bittersweet story of Turkey's refugees.

By India Bourke

You can’t visit Gaziantep without trying its baklava. In 2013 the city’s iconic dish became the first ever Turkish product to receive the official protection of the EU. Since then, the sweet shops have flourished while the wider economy has collapsed and the country’s diplomatic relations have fallen into disarray.  

It is a situation that has made ties with Europe seem increasingly appealing, at least to Turkey.

Last November President Erdogan struck a controversial deal with Europe: promising to help stem the flow of refugees to Greece in return for €3bn and renewed talks on joining the EU. With hundreds still sailing daily from Turkish shores, it is a deal Europe is depending on – as Angela Merkel stressed during Prime Minister Davutoglu’s visit to Berlin on Friday.

However, the accord’s success is hamstrung and the Turks’ tolerance of refugees is turning sour. Especially in Gaziantep, a city of aid workers and spies in south-central Turkey, just 30 miles from the Syrian border.

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At the Shaba Centre, in Yesilsu district, tensions are particularly high. Bright, white, and lined with minimalist mirrored shelves, Hamsa Sharour’s Syrian patisserie is a world away from the ornate décor of the city’s traditional baklava stores. In fact, it feels almost French, as does its assortment of Allepian baklawa. These small green sweets take the familiar Turkish recipe and refine it; the layers of pistachio and pastry are sculpted with new, origami-like elegance by some of Aleppo’s once celebrated chefs.“Syrians are a proud, sophisticated and highly educated people,” Sharour tells me. “In many ways we feel closer to Parisian culture than to the Turks. And the Turkish are never minded to shop here.”

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Hostility from the local community is something Sharour feels keenly. Turkey’s official camps only cater for a small fraction of the country’s 2.2 million Syrian refugees. Instead around 85 per cent are living independently inside the country’s border towns. The shortage of official work permits means most are employed illegally, in menial jobs, with no security. In turn their willingness to work for about half the national minimum wage undercuts the local workforce, fuelling resentment in an already fierce labour market. 

Easily overlooked by international press tours, these urban dwellers are a consequence of the crisis that diplomats would rather not confront. Recent polls reveal over 60 per cent of Turks regard such refugees as a threat to public order, and 70 per cent deem them a security risk. According to Rae McGrath, Mercy Corps Director of North Syria and Turkey, “If refugees continue to arrive in Turkey […] it won’t matter how much money the Government has to pay for education and services, the situation will become untenable and is likely to further imbalance an already fragile security situation.”

Such perceptions are weighing ever more heavily on Turkey’s Syrian youth. Abdulluh Dadhiki is Sharour’s dazzlingly charismatic shop assistant (pictured below). If he wants to continue the legal studies that he began in Aleppo, he must first master Turkish. It’s tough, he says, but worth it in order to remain close to his home country. 

For a string of assistants before him, however, the allure of Europe (where many can at least make themselves understood) has been too great – they have already left to take their chances on the boats.

For 28-year-old Ali Almana, the decision to stay is increasingly tough. His English has landed him a temporary job working for an NGO and an income he sends back to his family in Syria. Their needs grow by the day, but, he confesses – sitting in the single-bed flat he shares with a friend – so do his own, including the dream of starting his own family.

As Ali knows all too well, though, Gaziantep is no place for a refugee to raise a child. Just 24 per cent of the 400,000 Syrian children living inside Turkish cities are receiving an education. More and more fall into under-age work, crime, and early marriage. According to Care International, the surplus of child brides has caused their price to plummet.

There are some signs of progress: NGOs are piloting vital new services, such as Relief International’s centre for mental health provision. And the Turkish government has promised to ease refugees’ “participation in the economy”. However, it is not clear when or what form such change will take. Real improvement will require not just EU funding but an urgent overhaul of Turkey’s asylum law. And, ultimately, an international effort to bring the war itself to an end.

 “I want the British people to know we can still have a democracy in Syria,” Sharour impresses on me, a plate of round, glazed, baklawa on the table between us. “With international help there is still a chance for us Syrians to come back together,” he says, and, with his first smile, adds, “like the filling inside this sweet”.

Hamsa Sharour sends the profits from his baklava store back to Syria, to an organisation pressing for democracy and peace